Movies about movies risk tipping over the edge of sappy sentimentality, especially ones laced with nostalgia for the bygone eras. If cinema is a church, the golden age is fundamentalism, and any time you start dwelling on the perceived importance of fundamentalism, it doesn’t take much to push you over the edge of saccharine nostalgia.
Their Finest manages to walk that line with deft confidence, weaving a tale of classic cinema without falling into the trappings inherent to reverence. It’s all at once a heartwarming reminder of the power of cinema to move and transform and a fine example of reverence without exaltation.
Gemma Arterton (The Girl with All the Gifts) is an absolute delight in this tale of British endurance. During the early days of the London Blitz, the government is doing all that it can to keep morale high to ensure that everyone can keep calm and carry on. No easy task when the Nazis are indiscriminately bombing your nation. As part of the morale boosting counter-blitz, Britain turns to movies to inspire and uplift. Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a writer hired to spruce up “the slop”, that is, “female dialogue.”
This presents its own set of problems for Cole—gender politics of the day being what they were, hers is a thankless job, with her role relegated mostly to the background. Both the government and the studio they employ realize that women are the main audience, however—especially at this time when The Boys are across the sea fighting an impossible war.
Director Lone Scherfig (The Riot Club) carefully balances gender politics with the politics of war in Their Finest, brilliantly using her feminist bona fides to nudge the film along its densely-packed path. As an exploration of sexism, Their Finest manages to keep the problems front and center without ever making them the gravitational pull of the film.
No matter how high Cole reaches as a writer, she faces disrespect and patronization. “I’m the writer,” she tells a bewildered actor (played by the incomparable Bill Nighy) who wonders who she is to question his performance and notes. Would that these were thoughts and ideas that women writers only had to face in the past. Indeed, the themes at play here are as relevant as they ever were, with women still playing a marginalized role at every level of the film industry.
Soon, however, Cole is tapped for a choice job on a new film meant to embolden the hearts and minds of Britain, centered around the Battle of Dunkirk. Rumors are flying about a pair of sisters who stole their father’s fishing boat to assist in the rescue efforts, and while the story itself turns out to be less true than reports have stated, Cole and her bosses jump at the chance to tell an authentic (seeming) story of British bravery and endurance.
From here Their Finest pivots drastically, keeping the themes of equality going while becoming also a behind-the-scenes romp, showcasing all the compromises and absurdities that go into filmmaking. The absurdities are only heightened by Cole’s continuing struggle for acceptance as she fights against changing the premise—the heroes should be the women of the story, not the men—and steals herself against the systemic sexism of her industry. It’s infuriating to see that she won’t get a billed credit for her efforts, despite all that she does to write the film, but somehow that only adds to the steady build of comedy.
Indeed, Their Finest is hilarious. That may seem odd for a film set amidst the backdrop of air raids and rising body counts, but therein lies the embodiment of “keep calm and carry on.” Even as Cole’s personal life begins to fall apart (thanks to a shiftless, artist boyfriend who can’t stand the idea of his girl being the bread earner of the family) she persists. In her endurance she becomes Britain, surviving bombshell after bombshell only to thrive more than she ever has before.
Arterton carries the film on her shoulders, appearing in nearly every scene and becoming a hero in the process. Cole is alive in her hands, leaping off the screen and into reality as a fully actualized and realized character. Even facing off against Nighy proves effortless for the actress, which is no small feat. Like moviemaking itself, however, Their Finest is truly a team effort. Sam Claflin shines as Tom Buckley, Cole’s boss and potential love interest, if only Cole could rid herself of that insufferable Ellis (Jack Huston).
Together, the cast along with Scherfig, breathe wonderful life into the script from Gaby Chiappe (herself bringing the novel from Lissa Evans to beautiful fruition). Themes are balanced with intricate and deliberate delicacy, creating a work that moves and delights while warming and breaking hearts. It’s a celebration of the power of film that never exalts its medium so much as exalts the men and women who made it possible. Their Finest is a work of love and an ode to Britain, but never falls into the traps you might expect. For any lover of film, this is a must see.
Their Finest is now playing in limited release.